We are all trapped miners!

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even in tragedy — perhaps especially there — food for Jewish thought abounds. It is wrenching to imagine the grief of the families of the 12 miners who were found dead on January 4 after an explosion two days earlier in a West Virginia coal mine. More wrenching still to imagine, though, are the emotions of the men themselves, 13,000 feet below the surface of the earth, during their final hours of life. They had built a “rough barricade structure,” according to the president of the mine company, and at some point donned breathing apparatuses that would have provided them one hour’s worth of oxygen.

They surely prayed, as did their families high above, for their rescue. They may also have hopefully recalled a mine collapse four years earlier in Pennsylvania, when nine miners were finally rescued after three days underground. Sadly, the West Virginia miners’ fate, with the exception of a single man who was extricated alive, was not to be that happy one.

Painful as the imagining is, though, the miners’ final hours’ ordeal is worth pondering. Because it has the potential of providing us all a most valuable realization.

Picture yourself thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, surrounded by darkness and without nourishment, confined and cut off from loved ones — indeed, from the entire world.

And then imagine — as the miners surely hoped with all their might would happen to them — being rescued from the depths, hoisted to the surface once again into the light and fresh air, into the presence of family and friends. Imagine laying eyes on familiar things again, the sun, the sky, the faces. Imagine the gratitude that would swell any human heart at such a moment.

And then consider that each of us undergoes a similar experience each and every day.

We wake up in the morning.

It’s not only the fact that in sleep we are not conscious, not in control, or that people can and do die in their sleep; or even that sleep, like death, is insistent, and will only be postponed so long. The rabbis of the Talmud said something more; they considered sleep itself to be a virtual microcosm of death — “one sixtieth” of it, in their turn of phrase and thought.

The regularity with which we are granted new life each day dulls us, regrettably, to the import of the fact. That is only human nature, what Emerson alluded to when he wrote: “If the stars would appear but one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of G-d.”

But recognized or not, the import is there all the same, and demands every sensitive soul’s attention. Thus, while all too many of us awaken each day with grumbling about the speed with which morning arrived, Jewish tradition mandates that a Jew’s first words upon awakening in the morning are to be those of the short Modeh Ani prayer of gratitude. It is one of the first things observant Jewish parents teach their young children.

“I gratefully acknowledge You,” the prayer goes, “living and eternal King, for having returned my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is Your trustworthiness.”

Few of us, thankfully, will ever experience anything like what the trapped miners underwent. But all of us can benefit from relating it to what we do indeed undergo each and every day, as we pull ourselves from unconsciousness and dark into awareness and light. Our gratitude should be powerful and heartfelt.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is with Am Exhad Resources

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